Scott James, “The Virtue of Unread Books”
I explained to my boy that the practice of stockpiling books we’ve already read (his main concern, judging by the inciting question) is way down on my list of library benefits. It’s definitely on the list, but it isn’t the chief end of my book hoarding. Except for the few gems that fit into the “reread as often as you can” category, a library full of previously read books can easily become a sort of in-home monument—vaguely commemorating past accomplishments, having no real present purpose.
In contrast, the array of books in our home is intended for ongoing, well-rounded usefulness. They’re there to show us what’s possible, not venerate what’s already been. Even the history books, which are expressly about what has already been, are there to light an inquisitive fuse and point us forward into new exploits.
So my library has a diverse lot of books and, more importantly, an open invitation to the kids: Come; stoke your interest in all kinds of incredible things! Curious about those wall paintings you saw in the pyramids on TV? Let’s look through this book of hieroglyphs and learn how to write our names. Wondering what I’m talking about when I say your runny nose is caused by a virus? Well check out this picture of one of the little menaces right here in my old virology book (and yes, it is freaky that this guy is attacking your nose right now). Not following what we’re talking about in family worship? Look at this, the Bible atlas shows exactly where it happened so you can picture the scene better.
So it goes, on and on.
Rowan Williams, “The physicality of prayer”
So the day begins with a physically concrete and specific reminder that your own individual existence is breathed through by a life that isn’t your possession; and at moments of tension or anxiety during the day, deliberately breathing in and out a few times with the words of the prayer in mind connects you with this life that isn’t yours, immersing the anxiety and dispersing the tension – even if it doesn’t simply take away pain or doubt, solve problems or create some kind of spiritual bliss. The point is just to be connected again.
The mature practitioner (not me) will discover a steady clarity in the vision of self and world, and, in “advanced” states, an awareness of unbroken inner light, with the strong sense of an action going on within that is quite independent of your individual will – the prayer “praying itself”, not just human words but a connection between God transcendent and God present and within. Ritual anchors, ritual aligns, harmonises, relates. And what happens in the “Jesus Prayer” is just the way an individual can make real what is constantly going on in the larger-scale worship of the sacraments. The pity is that a lot of western Christianity these days finds all this increasingly alien. But I don’t think any one of us can begin to discover again what religion might mean unless we are prepared to expose ourselves to new ways of being in our bodies. But that’s a long story.
Chris Mitchell speaking in a chapel service at Biola University, November 20, 2013.
What you see here is what he was like in person. Totally transparent, this man was.
Peter Saunders, “Why Lord Carey is desperately wrong about legalising assisted suicide”
But what I find most astounding about Carey’s article is the almost complete lack of any theological framework for his argument. There is a vague reference to Christian principles of ‘open-hearted benevolence’ and ‘compassion’ and one mention (above) of Jesus.
But there is no discernible Christian world view underpinning what he says. Nothing of the fact that God made us and owns us; nothing of biblical morality or the sixth commandment; no doctrine of the Fall; little insight into the depths of human depravity and the need for strong laws to deter exploitation and abuse of vulnerable people; nothing of the cross or the resurrection; no hope beyond death; nothing of courage and perseverance in the face of suffering; no recognition of the need to make one’s peace with God and others before death; no real drive to make things better for dying patients and no real empathy with the feelings of vulnerable disabled and elderly people who fear a law like Falconer’s and will be campaigning in force outside parliament next Friday.
Carey has instead produced a piece that is high on emotion but weak on argument that capitulates to the spirit of the age; that enthrones personal autonomy above public safety; that sees no meaning or purpose in suffering; that appears profoundly naïve about the abuse of elderly and disabled people; that looks forward to no future beyond the grave and that could have been written by a member of the national secular society, British humanist association or voluntary euthanasia society.
There are communities and groups in the past whose voices were undoubtedly suppressed by an anxious and often unscrupulous [Church] hierarchy — women, Gnostics, Celts, if you will; but that they were suppressed does not mean that they were suppressed for believing what we believe. Simply because we have varying levels of unease about what the ‘mainstream’ Church has concluded does not entitle us to think that all those who disagreed with them agree with us. Gnostics attacked episcopal hierarchy and biblical literalism; various groups of them also argued for inflexible predestined divisions between classes of humans, or for the evil of the flesh and the female. Whatever we may want to say about them, we need to be cautious about regarding them as forerunners of a liberal and enlightened faith fitted for the contemporary market. Celtic Christians disagreed with aspects of centralised Church authority — but not as regards ethics or doctrine or even vernacular liturgy; and a glance at the Irish penitentials should disabuse anyone of the notion that Celtic Christians were instinctively hostile to legalism. Pelagius opposed the theology of original sin, but argued in consequence an unmitigated duty to obey the moral law by our efforts and the most stringent sanctions for disobedience. If we are to learn from any such suppressed or disadvantaged voices, we must first let them be themselves; they are at least as strange as any ‘orthodox’ voices from the past.Rowan Williams
Matthew Schmitz, “How I Evolved on Gay Marriage”
I returned to campus last month and ran into an old friend who had recently gotten engaged to his boyfriend. The two of them asked about my job and, understanding the public commitments of this journal, asked in a winsomely direct and gentle manner what I thought couples like them should do. We were headed in different directions, and I admitted that I was probably incapable of offering a satisfying answer on the spot.
I am not optimistic about doing so here, either, but let me try. A week after my admission to my friend, I was sitting at a wedding Mass listening to the reading of a prayer written by the bride and groom. It asked that “all called to the generosity of the single or celibate … might inspire [name of bride and groom] by their conformity to Christ, and always find in them fiercely devoted friends, and in their house a second home.”
The prayer moved me, in part because I’d been going through my own period of loneliness, but also because it reminded me that the movement for gay marriage is absolutely right to demand that the institution be made more inclusive. Where it goes wrong is in supposing this can be done by asserting a free-floating right to marriage, rather than by insisting on the duty of every marriage to become a place of welcome. We can’t and shouldn’t redesign marriage under the illusion that it can directly include everyone. We need more than one form of solidarity.
Man vs. Machine «
I wrote last week that the only thing this World Cup lacked was a truly great team. I’m still not sure that Germany is one, and I’m completely sure that Argentina isn’t. In a way, though, it doesn’t matter. These teams are playing for equally high stakes. Germany’s 7-1 win was instantly as legendary as many World Cup finals. If it wins the title, it will be remembered in the same breath as the best teams ever to play in this tournament, because you do not beat Brazil in Brazil by six goals en route to a world championship and still get dinged for drawing with Ghana. An Argentina win, meanwhile, not only gives the nation a schadenfreude-laced World Cup championship on the home turf of its continental rival. It also puts Messi beyond even the shoutiest pundit’s efforts to keep him out of the greatest-of-all-time debate.
And that’s what we’re playing for on Sunday. Validation for the best team in the tournament or validation for the best player in the world. In a sense, it’s perfect. Germany has the better squad, Argentina has the best player. Germany comes in after a terrifying rampage, Argentina comes in after holding on for dear life. Argentina, thanks to Messi, has a better chance of producing a moment that feels like magic, but Germany has just done something indescribably astonishing and strange. I think Germany will win, but I have no idea what will happen. I have no idea whether I will even believe it when it happens. After a month of stats, signs, and symbols, I am extremely excited to find out.
The spiral staircase to the upper room
delivered us to our longed-for vintage—
’75 Glenrothes, Speyside-aged
single malt, a ripe deep gold perfumed
with candied orange peel, made with honeycomb
and Bergamot marmalade. We engaged
each present friend on the fringe of language,
each blooming late with stories, quirks, and rumors.
If our mouths spoke of fate, we heard it said
with deeper intonations, like the blissful
youth of our host in emerald Oregon’s mists.
While darkness fell we toasted to echad,
meaning “one,” the sort of union that consists
of fellows gathered here, lamplit and glad.
– May 1, 2012
Paul Elie, “Advice You’ll Never Outgrow.” I’m reminded of the (one suspects apocryphal but wishes not) story about the Old Testament scholar Brevard Childs at Yale. Asked by a student upset over his grade on an essay how he could improve the next time around, Childs replied, “Become a deeper person.”
I went into his office and waited for a phone call to end. He stood. A smile, a cock of the head, a pat on the shoulder. He liked it, he said—liked it a lot. Then: “Go deeper. You need to go deeper.”
I asked him what he meant, and he explained, roundabout but in such a way as to draw clear lines between the literary text and all the other kinds of writing that washed up against the pilings of our office. What I’d written was too journalistic. It made too much of superficial connections. It was boosterish in style—it was trying to put the idea of a “school” of American Catholic writing over on us instead of trusting the material. And (again, all this was conveyed indirectly) it didn’t get to the bottom of what made these people a school, or what made them Catholic writers, or what made them Catholics at all, or why what they believed mattered to them or us.
Roger Straus liked it too—and Jonathan and FSG signed up the book. And day and night for a thousand days and nights I sought to go deeper, starting by moving my point of entry into the story back nearly half a century—to the moments where those four writers themselves turned, in their different ways, to literature and to religious belief in their own efforts to go deeper. And somewhere in the middle of those thousand days and nights, I concluded that the experience of depth—intellectual, emotional, spiritual depth—is the central literary experience. It is what makes literature literature, and what makes us read literature, and write it.
“Go deeper.” It’s not advice a writer can outgrow or set aside as unnecessary. Augustine asked, “Who understands his sins?” Likewise, what writer can truly say, “I’ve gone deep enough”?
Michael Robbins, “Know Nothing”
[According to Gray, “secular believers… are in the grip of unexamined dogmas.”] This will already have occurred to anyone who has spent five minutes browsing, say, the comments sections of Dawkins’ website. Though, as it happens, the most affecting response to this sort of arrogance I’ve encountered is also there, courtesy of an Orthodox believer calling herself Saint Cecilia. (I don’t know her real name, but she certainly has the patience of a saint.) On a comment thread devoted to misunderstanding Hart’s arguments, she gently corrects a few of the usual fallacies. The “pitch” of Christianity, she points out, has “nothing to do with the Big Bang or evolution or anything like that at all.” Nor is the existence of God a scientific proposition: “Christians aren’t talking about a math problem, they’re talking about a Person. And in the vast experience of people who claim to have had a genuine encounter with the Personality called Christ, there are certain things that are involved, such as willingness [and] humility.” The modest atheists respond with their customary persiflage: “Can you spell g-u-l-l-i-b-l-e?” Cecilia isn’t ruffled: “I spell gullible exactly as you did. Well done.” She continues:If someone is really interested in whether or not God exists, I’d say the best way is to have a little humility and experiment, with an open mind and heart, with the paths that Christians have claimed take you directly to him, in the ways that have worked. If someone isn’t willing to do such a thing, and insists that a discussion about painting be one about mathematics, then the conversation isn’t going to go anywhere.This spirit of invitation and inquiry is far from gullible, a calumny better directed at the evangelical-atheist faithful who thoughtlessly parrot what Emerson called “the tune of the time.” Again, the point is not whether God does or does not exist, but that, as Cecilia writes elsewhere in the thread, “Everyone is talking past each other and no one seems to be elevating the conversation to where it could and should be.”
from my review of Sara Miles’ book City of God in the July/August issue of Books & Culture (which you can access in full with a subscription! — something you won’t regret, I can promise)
To her credit, Miles incorporates dissenting voices in her narrative. She quotes one critic as saying, “Taking the imposition of ashes out of a liturgical context that includes scripture readings, the invitation to a holy Lent, and the litany of penitence, there is no insistence on the reality of sin or any call to repentance.” In the interest of full disclosure, as an Anglican of a very traditional sort myself, I should confess that I share this worry. I fret over whether “Ashes to Go” reduces Christian symbolism to its lowest common denominator, watering down the call of the gospel to name Jesus as rescuer but also judge. Still, I have to admit that ashes have never been considered a sacrament in the Christian tradition, and imposing them on pedestrians is not the same thing as if one were taking the Eucharist to the market square and offering it on the spot to anyone who wanted it. And perhaps ashes—simple and almost caustically stark; a reminder of mortality—are the ideal gateway drug to lure people into a full-fledged Christian faith. Perhaps “Ashes to Go” will be the thing that causes some people to receive, say, “Baptism to Stay.” As an Episcopal bishop friend of mine once put it, after his first experiment with the practice, “I see Ashes to Go as a sort of ‘pre-evangelism.’”
For Miles, taking part in this unconventional form of pre-evangelism has, she says, re-evangelized her. After several years of street-side Ash Wednesday liturgies, she is better able to picture the heavenly city the way she believes it will actually look—”like the ‘New Jerusalem’ bodega run by Syrian Christians that I trudge past on my way to work, its dingy pink front plastered over with Miller beer signs, its enthusiastic, unshaven owner waving and smiling each new day as he opens the door to welcome in a straggling, polyglot parade of schoolkids, nurses, winos, and day laborers.” Reading that, I can’t help but recall the ending of “Revelation” by Flannery O’Connor, in which Mrs. Turpin receives a vision of “a vast horde of souls … rumbling toward heaven”: “whole companies of white-trash, clean for the first time in their lives, and bands of black niggers in white robes, and battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs”—the population of the city of God. That vision of a motley contingent of pilgrims, foreheads all bedaubed with ashes, making their way to their celestial habitation is the gospel Miles has heard afresh. That’s the substance of her renewed eschatological hope.
This is my commonplace book and sometime-journal.
I blog at SpiritualFriendship.org.
My book is here: Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality.
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